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Thursday, September 1, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Warhol's Portraits Of Endangered

Arts review

"Endangered Species," a print portfolio by Andy Warhol, at Carolyn Staley Fine Prints, 313 First Ave. S. Opening today, 5 to 8 p.m. Regular hours are Mondays through Saturdays, 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Through Sept. 30. Many other galleries also have First Thursday openings tonight.

Andy Warhol is remembered for many pop culture images: Campbell Soup cans, Coca-Cola bottles and Crayola-colored silkscreens of Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean are some of the most familiar.

But in the early '80s, the high priest of pop art veered from his trademark ironic veneration of celebrities and American iconography and created 10 images of animals that were published in a 1983 portfolio called "Endangered Species."

The animals portrayed include the African elephant, the Siberian tiger and the Pine Barrens tree frog - all species threatened by extinction. But unlike his treatment of soup cans and Brillo boxes - the ordinary, mass-produced detritus of American consumer culture that Warhol elevated to the level of subversive art - his images of endangered species are heroic, noble and untinged by his usual ironic filtration. And though they are compelling as art, they obviously also have a political nature: New York art dealer Ronald Feldman, who published the series, was interested in environmentalism and it was he who suggested the subject of the series to Warhol.

Perhaps for those reasons, "Endangered Species" is one of Warhol's lesser-known works. That makes this month's Seattle exhibition of one of the portfolios all the more exciting. Print dealer Carolyn Staley purchased a set of the prints at a European auction and is showing them in her First Avenue gallery. She will sell the 10 prints individually; prices range from $7,000 to $12,000. (The only intact set on public display in the Pacific Northwest, she says, is at the Heathman Hotel in Portland.)

Staley, who usually deals in non-contemporary prints by Japanese and European masters, jokes that since Warhol died in 1987, showing his "Endangered Species" portfolio fits within her general philosophy of only dealing in works by dead artists. She admits, however, that having the huge, (38-inch by 38-inch), vivid silkscreens taking up most of the wall space in her gallery may surprise some regular customers. Her shoebox-sized space is usually chock-a-block with small, tasteful 18th- and 19th-century botanical prints, subtle Japanese scenes and renderings of old maps.

"There are several groups we're aiming for with this show," said Staley. "There are the people who know and love Andy's work. Then there are people who may be interested because of all the publicity about the new Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and all the publicity about his foundation squandering money. And there are people around here who are involved in the zoological societies who are very interested in animals."

Warhol revisited

Staley is banking on what she hopes is a resurgence of interest in Warhol's work. Though considered one of the founding figures of the '60s and early '70s pop-art movement, Warhol fell out of style in the '80s, an era when the art world became enamored with a generation of thirtysomething, slickly marketed artists more concerned with the emotional and spiritual vacuity of contemporary life than the phenomenon of pop culture.

Each of the 150 "Endangered Species" portfolios published is signed and numbered. Staley purchased set number 69, which is in pristine condition.

As was his lifelong habit, Warhol, who as a young man trained as a commercial artist, let his printing and publishing crew make many of the preliminary decisions on such questions as color configurations.

Warhol did the line drawings for the images based on photographs, then his printer created up to 200 trial proofs of each image using different variations of color screens. Warhol's colleagues edited the proofs to two to four color variations per image. Warhol chose the exact color combinations he liked and the prints were made through a traditional silk-screening process.

Like his earlier work, part of the intrigue of the prints comes from his mixing of realistically rendered images with complex, make-believe color combinations. Like his famous "Twenty-Five Colored Marilyns," in which Monroe is given Pepto-Bismol-colored skin, candy-apple red lips, marigold hair and turquoise eyelids, his "Endangered Species," includes a hot-pink elephant, a yellow orangutan and a Bighorn ram with green horns.

Regal animal kingdom

These days, most people view animals, whether house pets or endangered species, sympathetically and it's easy for artists' renderings of animals to slide into the saccharine and the banal. It takes little skill to make an animal cute. But though one or two of Warhol's endangered species lean toward cuteness - the panda can't help but remind you of a teddy bear, the Pine Barrens tree frog is endearing with its buggy eyes and oversized green "toes" spread wide to grasp a tree limb - these animals are too regal to go on a greeting card or T-shirt.

Warhol chose to show several animals from the neck up, giving them a formal look, as though sitting for a portrait. Others, the most massive (the elephant and the Black Rhinoceros), and the tiniest (the San Francisco Silverspot Butterfly and the tree frog), are shown in total, emphasizing their sizes. The 10 prints together are dramatic documentation of the alarming diversity of animal species at risk of vanishing forever.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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